Advice from an exceptional data scientist: Mark Okello on staying humble and always learning

Image for post
Image for post

“How do you move from where you are now to being exceptional? Data science has been promoted as the sexiest job of the 21st century, but nobody tells you how tough the journey might be.”

Mark Okello knows a thing or two about the journey to being exceptional. In just a few years, he has gone from an interest in data to a leading role in Uganda’s growing data science community. He has co-founded a public health company improving TB (and recently COVID-19) diagnostics in Uganda and South Sudan, works with several international development organisations, and helps run the Kampala R User Group, the biggest data science group in Uganda. He’s also one of Zindi’s longest-standing Ambassadors.

Mark’s company, MedX, is improving TB diagnosis in Uganda, by building a secure web-based laboratory information management system that retrieves and stores completed test results from laboratory machines in real-time. This system automates the process of TB and COVID-19 diagnosis and reduces the time it takes for patients and hospitals to get results by using SMS alerts.

He recently shared some advice for those starting their own data science journey.

Mark’s first piece of advice is to learn from others, and with others.

“There is so much to learn in data science, and some of it is so complicated,” he says. “But if you learn it as a group, or work on it as a group you’ll find it becomes easier. That’s how I started.”

He also says that volunteering your time is a great way to learn from other people in a practical setting:

“I have volunteered a lot with different organisations. You get to work with people with different skill sets and world views. It’s a great way to learn.”

“When Zindi started in 2018, it was really amazing because it was speaking to most of the things which I understand. The problems on the platform are African,” he says. “You should always go for competitions as a group to maximise your learning.”

Mark and his team recently placed in the top 10 of the hotly-contested UNICEF Arm 2030 Vision #1: Flood Prediction in Malawi Challenge.

But, he says, competitions aren’t everything. In a competition, the dataset is usually pre-processed and cleaned up. His advice is to work with open datasets as well, so you start to see what real-world data looks like.

“You learn from these datasets that real data is so messy. Most of my skills I gained from playing around with open data sets from Uganda’s Open Data portal; in most cases, you learn a lot about how to manipulate datasets from messy data.”

A mentor can help guide you by providing some directed learning, Mark advises. There is an overwhelming amount of data science learning content out there, and a mentor can help direct you. The Zindi leaderboard or the top 10 of recent competitions is a great place to look for a mentor, and you can even send them a private message using Zindi’s new Inbox feature.

His last advice is to stay humble, even when you are an experienced data scientist.

“In a group, you will learn a lot if you give people a chance. Data science is not like other fields where the more years you have, the more you know. It’s a growing field and in most cases, someone who has just started will have something you can learn from.”

“If you stay humble, stay patient and work hard, anything is possible.”

We are proud to have an ambassador like Mark Okello representing Zindi, and we hope that many Zindians will follow in his footsteps to become exceptional data scientists and leaders.

You can find Mark on Zindi @r256p, Twitter @okello_mark or on LinkedIn.

Written by

Zindi is a competition platform hosting a community of data scientists dedicated to solving Africa’s toughest challenges through machine learning & AI

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store